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How to Use a Spaced Repetition System


Though amazingly simple, a lot of people struggle with the srs programs that are out there. It isn’t so much the program itself but rather how to make and review the cards that trip them up. You would think with something like a flash card (having been in our school systems for a long time) would be easy to do, however many struggle with making cards themselves.

Lets cover some tips and rules to follow when making cards, and then tips on reviewing them. (Cards dealing with RTK will be covered in it’s article.)

Making Your Cards

The good ol’ people at SuperMemo have a great list of pointers to follow themselves. A good portion of it is easy to follow and some is just explained rather difficultly I think. But let’s cover some tried and true basics of card making.

  1. KISS: Keep It Simple, Silly! – It’s very important to remember this. Cards need to have as few words as possible, simple concept, simple layout. Large chunks of information should be broken up into several cards for the best memorization. To much information on a single card, or complex answers will just make trouble.
  2. If you don’t understand it, you wont learn it - This one is pretty straight forward. First seek to understand it, then try to learn it.
  3. Fill in the blanks - This is a simple way to create cards with one word answers. Don’t exclude too much information on the question side, so that its obvious what the answer should be.
  4. A picture is worth a Thousand Words! - If you can use images, then use them. This can help out people who’re better at visuals than words. This is especially true with languages, however, make sure you know what you’re clearly asking for from the photo.
  5. Make it fun – making boring cards wont always serve you best, using funny/interesting mnemonics will help you remember better.
  6. Avoid Long Lists – If you’re using numbers, alphabets, names of people who ate cheese burgers Friday afternoon, then you wanna split the question up into several, and let them overlap. It’s okay if one cards question has the answer to another in it. Best to keep it to roughly 3 in a sequence, any more and it can cause memory issues.
  7. If in Doubt, Throw it Out! - nothing like a stinker card to trip you up and make you hate your srs. Delete is your best friend. Reword cards, edit them, do what you must, but do something rather than let that stinker ruin your drive.
  8. Personal, Emotional Memories – If you can use personal experiences, or emotional feelings with cards, this can help you remember things better too. For instance, if you remember an embarrassing event that you happen to be able to tie into something you need to learn, you’ll be even more likely to remember it. Using this with mnemonic devices can just up the goodness. (popular in RTK)
  9. Shorthand – shorthand can help keep cards very simple. No need to write minute when you can write min.
  10. Repeat it – It’s okay to have several cards for a question if there is a bunch of ways to ask it.
  11. Reversible – Don’t focus on making your cards work two ways, however, it you can make one easily, it’ll just help solidify the goodness.

Reviewing Your Cards

Here is some really quick tips on reviewing.

  1. Habitual Practice > Spontaneous Practice: Every day. End of Story. If you don’t do this, you’ll likely find you’ll forget stuff and/or blame the SRS. Sure missing one day here or there wont kill you but the whole point of a SRS is to study just a bit everyday to retain information for the long run. So make it a habit!
  2.   Review First, Add Second: Never push-off reviews for adding in material.
  3.   Review in small chunks: A person’s attention span does not last forever. Everyone varies, like I find 10 mins perfect for me, you may find 5 or 15 better for you. Either way, do not force more than 20 mins of dedicated SRS reviewing on yourself. You’ll cause burnout and you’ll most likely avoid your reviews rather than doing them.
  4.   Make it a ゲームー!(Game): Because I make my reviews last only 10 mins, I also try to fit as many as humanly possible into that time frame. Everyday I try to beat that score. Make things into mini games for fun. Fun lets you learn better too.
  5.   Answer Fast or you Fail!: Because Failing is okay, worry not, however you should not be spending more than 10 seconds answering a card. Because your answers should be simple, answering them in 10 seconds should be even easier. If you’re straining to remember a card, then you need to just let go and hit 0 (or whatever your button for wrong is).
  6.   Study when Alert: Don’t study to late or to early if you’ll be groggy. Your reaction time will be slower, and your brain will probably be to fuzzy. So avoid it if you can, but if it’s the only time you have, try doing some jumping jacks (5-10 will help cause an adrenaline rush) or splashing water on your face.
  7.   Delete/Suspend/Edit: Bad cards are BAD! They will bog you down, destroy your life! (well, or maybe not so much destroy your life, but it will make your life hell doing srs with horribly made cards, or cards filled with boring mundane junk)
  8.   Deck Separation: It might make more sense for you to put all your kanji cards in one deck, and all your sentences in another, or if you do grammar, grammar points in another. It also may make sense for you to put them all in one deck. Either way, make sure whatever it is you do, check each deck out for its set of daily reviews. (anki and smart.fm is very easy to show you which sets need studying. Not sure about other srs programs out there)

Ultimately its up to you to experiment, research, and play around with styles of card making and reviewing that work best for you. While these tips are ones I follow and have brought me lots of success you may find you need to tweak yours a bit too. That’s fine, just remember, Results are what matters.

Also as a side note.

SRS is not made to work overnight.

I cannot tell you how many people I run across that stopped using their SRS because they felt they weren’t learning the information fast enough to suit them. They wanted to be able to review over and over and over and over and over until the information was implanted into their brains, until it was oozing outta their eyeballs!

Sure Anki and Smart.fm have modes that sorta help thrust short-term memory on you, however these things wont necessarily help you in the long run if you’re not committed to that. SRSs are best used when you know you’ll have time. If you’re a procrastinator, this might be a little hard for you. In terms of school, you wont want to enter information for a test the week before its due, but rather the second you learned the information in class. This is true with Japanese studying too.

Say you’re following a course book. When you learn chapter 1, enter information into your SRS that correlates to chapter 1. Don’t wait until you’re on chapter 9 to enter it, or the test is tomorrow. If you’re learning on your own, then SRS should be just fine for you, as you set your own dates for progressing through information. Do it as you go.

Cram modes have their place, but just remember it still takes practice with information to keep it learned for the long run. And the whole point for the SRS is to retain information for the long run in the most effective way possible.

Mikoto Neko

The Ring leader of multiple projects who is studying japanese and raising a family! Who needs time for sleep?

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